The immigrant experience in America is frequently told through food, often by adults reflecting on the embarrassment they felt when unpacking a homemade meal in the school cafeteria, as peers mocked their sushi rolls, steam buns, pork dumplings and other dishes that have basically become staples of our diet in the 21st century. But as Jollibee, a Philippine import, begins its rapid expansion across our land, I realized there’s another chapter to the oft-told tale of the immigrant “lunchbox moment":
The cynical dismissal of a foreign fast-food concept without first understanding its importance to the people who love it.
I saw this play out in real-time as I started to scout the first Jollibee to land in the D.C. market, right next door to a Jersey Mike’s Subs in a strip center that’s set apart but somehow still part of the Westfield Wheaton mall. When I started posting photos to the usual social channels, most folks were genuinely excited by the prospect of a Jollibee in their neighborhood. But there were a few sniping comments that grated on me perhaps more than they should have: that the menu looked like nothing special; that no one should ever stand in line for fast-food chain; that they’ll file Jollibee under the category of Places a Professional Critic Can Visit So They Don’t Have To.
I mean, how hard is it to understand the joy of reuniting with a favorite food — even if it’s just junk food — that you haven’t tasted since childhood in a land far away? All I had to do is imagine living overseas and the thrill I’d feel at discovering a Runza outlet around the corner. Come to think of it, I’d do cartwheels if I found a Runza outlet within 90 miles of Washington, which, last I checked, is still considered part of the United States, no matter how foreign you might think it is.
Paolo Dungca, one of two Philippine chefs behind Pogiboy in downtown Washington, freely talks about how Jollibee has influenced their fast-casual concept. Two of the chain’s signature dishes (the Jolly Spaghetti and the Chickenjoy) have been reimagined at Pogiboy by Dungca and Tom Cunanan, the former chef at Bad Saint, where he won a James Beard Award for his exquisite takes on Philippine cooking. Both businesses — the giant multinational Jollibee and the modest Pogiboy counter inside the Block — like to blur, and maybe even erase, the lines between American and Philippine comfort foods.
Of course, any discussion about Jollibee’s influence is incomplete without understanding its cultural impact, too. Even before Dungca and I sat down to a spread of Chickenjoy, Jolly Spaghetti, burger steaks, adobo rice and peach-mango pies, the chef told me about his childhood trips to Jollibee, whether in Pampanga (his native province) or Cerritos, Calif. (where his mother and stepfather, Madonna and Rudy Garcia, transplanted the family in 2004). He told me about sleepovers with his cousins and how they would gather at Jollibee the following morning for a highly anticipated feast. Or how his mother would come home late from her shift at a Disney resort with a bucket of Jollibee chicken, which truly was a form of Chickenjoy. Or how he’d celebrate birthdays at Jollibee.
“For me, this is childhood nostalgia,” Dungca said as we stood in line, a common experience at Jollibee.
And yet it’s more than nostalgia. When he moved to the Los Angeles area as a boy — a stranger in a Mickey Mouse world — he found comfort in the Jollibee locations that had popped up in Southern California. Yes, they offered a taste of home, but they also made the transition to the United States easier, as if Jollibee’s very presence was tacit acknowledgment that Dungca was welcome here. These were feelings powerful enough to build bonds, stronger than iron.
It goes without saying that I have no such bond to Jollibee. But one bite of the chain’s chicken — so crisp, so juicy, so American — and I realized I didn’t need a backstory to appreciate the drumsticks and thighs buried in a bucket of Chickenjoy, their breaded flesh spiked with just enough soy to deepen the pleasures. Dunking the chicken into Jollibee’s gravy, a viscous preparation with a noticeable surface gloss, might sound obscene, but you absolutely must do it.
The same gravy comes ladled over the burger steak, which Dungca rightly compares to Salisbury steak. The dish is a pair of ground-beef steaks, each griddled long enough to pick up a little color and grill flavor. The steaks are smothered with that umami gravy and sprinkled with a handful of sliced button mushrooms. The preparation looks one step removed from junior high cafeteria fare, and yet I could not stop eating it.
Open since April, the Wheaton Jollibee is still a work in progress. Its menu is not as expansive as those in other cities. You have exactly one Yumburger option, the one covered with cheese. I couldn’t immediately discern the burger’s Philippine features despite its famous tagline, “langhap sarap,” a sort of fast-food come-hither that means “delicious aroma” in Tagalog. You won’t find any breakfast dishes here yet, such as the plate of fried eggs and longanisa sausage. Nor will you find halo-halo, the sublime Philippine mash-up of a dessert, though I’m told the Wheaton menu will continue to expand as the staff gets more training.
But you will find a fried chicken sandwich, a crunchy specimen that tastes as if the breast meat has been brined within an inch of its life. It stands up well to the fast-food competition. You’ll also find a decent pancit palabok, one that, I’d argue, would benefit from a generous application of fried garlic and tinapa. Then there’s the most divisive dish on the menu, the Jolly Spaghetti, a plate of pasta drenched in a ketchuplike meat sauce, which conceals slices of emulsified hot dog. On first bite, I thought it was sticky sweet. On second bite, I found it strangely alluring. Halfway through, I realized that Jolly Spaghetti occupies its own universe, where its rarity makes the dish an object of great desire.
If Dungca and I were of different minds about the Jolly Spaghetti, we were on the same page about the peach-mango pie. As we popped open the slender box that housed our dessert, we marveled at the texture of the fried hand pie, a little crispy, a little bubbly and a little chewy. We talked about the addition of peaches to the gooey filling and whether it was a concession to the American palate. But mostly we wondered if this was the greatest fast-food dessert in existence.
We couldn’t think of a better one.
2800 University Blvd W., Suite C, Wheaton, Md. 240-657-9840; jollibeeusa.com.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Nearest Metro: Wheaton, with a half-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $2 to $38 for all items on the menu.